I want one: The Little Free Library

Houston’s first Little Free Library, via SwampLot.com

How cute is this?

It’s little. It’s a library. It’s on the honor system. You bring a book, you take a book. You keep words circulating out in the world, instead of gathering dust on your bookself.

It’s stealth. No library cards or tax dollars at work here. It’s just a cool thing to do. And it’s a movement.

Someone in Houston’s Heights neighborhood read a Kyrie O’Connor column in the Houston Chronicle about the lack of Little Free Libraries in Houston. So they built one, and it’s adorable. SwampLot, one of my favorite real estate blogs, wrote about it here.

I want one.

And there are none, zippo, zilch in San Antonio. Can we fix this?

I also live in a historic district. Is is bad that I read about something like the Little Free Library, and as soon as I think, “awesome,” my next thoughts jump to city codes and in how many various ways this could violate the approvals I’m supposed to get before “altering” the exterior of my home? In San Antonio there’s an actual commission for this sort of thing, and because of it I fear the day I want to change my house color.

And then I wonder if every book and the library itself would disappear in my neighborhood, where putting old stuff out the curb and counting the mere minutes it takes to disappear is high entertainment.

Uh-oh. Have I become jaded?

And yet the Little Free Library melts my stony, reporter’s heart. I’m mentally stocking my mini-brary now. What would you put in a Little Free Library?

– Jen

Going for the gold in Olympics couch potatoing

You can check out newspaper front pages every day at the Newseum.org. Here is today’s Times of London, one of the papers featured today by Poynter.

We cancelled our cable almost a year ago and hardly ever watch TV. This isn’t some intellectual snobbery. We don’t brag about not having cable. We just don’t have time.

Our kids are very young – far too young to watch anything that might appear during the evening hours – and we found that we were going two and three weeks at a time without turning on the TV. (And sadly, we don’t have the sort of children who climb into bed at 7:30 and sleep for 12 hours. I hate those parents). So no cable for us.

But we do have one of those digital antenna thingies. So we get the networks and some really strange weather radar channels through that.

And thank God.

Because it’s the Olympics, the one television event that I LOVE with unrestricted, patriotic, cheeseball abandon. I could quite happily sit on the couch for the whole Olympics, rooting for the Americans and people from all sorts of other countries. I love the emotionally manipulative features. I love watching all of the athletes march into the opening ceremonies. I love the swimming, even though I have no idea why it’s so exciting to watch, and I loathe swimming laps myself. There is something fantastic and inspiring about people who push themselves to their physical and emotional limits. Plus, we get the Queen, the Sex Pistols, Mary Poppins, J.K. Rowling and Paul McCartney in one evening.

So what am I loving reading this week? All things Olympics related.

  • Texas Longhorns swimmer and Churchill High School grad Jimmy Feigen is one that all of us in San Antonio are watching. And hooray, he’s doing an Olympic diary with the Express-News. Today he let us know that he’s not “a beret person” and gave us this gem: “There’s unlimited free McDonald’s in the village, but I can’t eat it until after  we race. On the first day we were here, I showed up to the table with a  chocolate milkshake. (Michael) Phelps and Brendan  Hansen almost went insane.”

Really, you should check out this diary. I thought it was great.

  • Buck Harvey has a nice column about a former UTSA coach who has made it to the Olympics as an assistant track and field coach. Very cool to hear about someone realizing their Olympic dreams on the coaching side. (Even though she didn’t get to walk in for the opening ceremonies as she had hoped).
  • Tanji Patton has a nice, mouth-watering feature about Olympian-worthy meals on her blog. Because we know from Feigen that they’re not really eating McDonald’s in the athlete’s village.
  • Poynter looks at the front pages that announce the start of the Olympics.
  • I think it kicks ass that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. (Not everyone feels the same, according to this story). Can someone cover these amazing ladies more? Please?

– Jen

Holy X chromosome, book readers!

So I’ve been casually counting the X- and Y-chromosomes on our weekly books pages, just to see how women writers are faring.

And when I say casually, I mean totally unscientific. Because my boyfriend went on a recycling rampage and tossed the lifestyle section a couple of weekends ago before I could pick it apart. He is a fearsome sight when he decides to clean off the dining room table of newspapers, junk mail and old magazines.

Anyway, here’s the tally from last Sunday, July 15:

Number of book reviews/stories: 17

  • Female authors: 9
  • Male authors: 7
  • Male/female co-authors: 1 (Stan and Jan Berenstein)
  • Poems: 1 (by a guy)

So yep, I was happily shocked to see the ladies win the weekend. It’s a first since I started paying attention to this.

Seventeen books is a lot to feature on a two-page spread, and more than you’ll usually find in our paper. But our books editor ran two roundup stories of great books for children young adults, so more books were included than usual.

And one of the roundups was by yours truly. I wrote short reviews of four picture books for children. Because, you know, picture books take up a LOT of my reading time in the evenings. I thought it would be fun to give a shout-out to the amazing writers and illustrators who keep my children entertained.

How was my own X- and Y-chromosome tally?

I was 50-50, right down the middle.

Although to be fair, now that I look at the list again, I had two female and two male authors. But all of the illustrators were men. Hmm.

I’m working on another piece this weekend about some more books for little people that should run in the next several weeks.

And I’m also working on a review of a lovely, heartwrenching novel (for adults) by a debut author. Male or female? You’ll have to stay tuned to find out.

– Jen

In search of an old friend, ‘The Wednesday Witch’

“The Wednesday Witch” by Ruth Chew.

I used to loathe parting with books. If I read it, or intended to read it – no matter the decade – it had a permanent place on my shelves.

Then I moved several million times and befriended a neat freak graphic designer. She was aghast in my home office one day. “Why do you have all of these books?”

“I love books,” I replied.

“Are you going to read all of them again?”

“Of course not.”

Hmmm. That was a few years and several hundred books ago. She encouraged me to let go of the ones that weren’t favorites, or references for work, or some other important touchstone.

This was an almost physically-difficult lesson to learn. But I discovered that passing along books to friends and family members had its own rewards. Spreading the word about favorite writers. Making room on the shelves for new books. It’s a healthy, cleansing, normal thing to do. Like sorting through the closet or making sure the four-years-expired condiments get tossed before accidental food poisoning ensues.

But there have been mistakes. Horrible mistakes.

At some point – and I don’t know how this  could have happened – I lost track of “The Wednesday Witch” by Ruth Chew. This was the first chapter book I read in one day. I think I was six or so. I remember being so proud that I had mowed through the entire thing at once. I ran to tell my mom about it.

I cannot find my copy. I can’t fathom that I would have parted with this book on purpose. I did give away a ton of children’s books once to a teacher friend. But I kept the important ones. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. The Ramona books. The Judy Blumes.

So I looked up what a copy of “The Wednesday Witch” would cost. Hello! It is out of print and collectible. (The Amazon prices range from about $8 to insanity).

Every once in a while I search through my parent’s house looking for this book. Clearly I should just buy the darn thing, but I seem to have some strange, tangible need to read the EXACT copy of this book that I read as a child. It is a story about a modern witch who rides a vaccuum cleaner instead of a broom. How cool is that? “The arrival of a witch who travels by magic vacuum cleaner is only the beginning of Mary Jane’s strange adventures,” is the book’s premise.

More to the point, why on earth is this book out print?

Chew died in 2010 at age 90, but her estate hopes to have her books republished.

“Little Witch” by Anna Elizabeth Bennett

Reading up on Ruth Chew got me worried about another old friend, “Little Witch” by Anna Elizabeth Bennett. I never owned a copy of this. I just checked it out of the elementary school library about 1,000 times.

There’s probably an entire generation of kids from my elementary school who never got to read this book because of me.

Yep, it’s out of print as well. And it starts at $43 and goes into the $260s.

Bah! This is so much worse that hearing your high school music on the classic rock station for the first time.

– Jen

The weekly round up

Here’s a roundup up of what’s caught my eye in the world of journalism, books and writing:

  • This McAllen library got some much-deserved web love from The Daily Good. It’s a fantastic redo of a vacant Wal-Mart space, and a great answer to what to do with all of that befuddling, empty big-box space around the country. Fill it with books!
  • Here’s yet another reason I am so damn glad that social media didn’t exist when I was in college. Romenesko this week reported about a newsroom intern who Tweeted about a colleague who “was supposed to be good but she doesn’t do crap.” Whoops. That could make for an awkward rest of the summer.
  • An Associated Press intern, Armando Montano, was found dead in an elevator shaft in Mexico City this week. You can read the Poynter story here.  It’s not clear if this was an accident, but the number of reporters killed in Mexico in recent years is absolutely terrifying. The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks deaths in the Americas here. And CPJ has this great – and scary – story about the threats to reporters in Mexico.
  • There are so damn many ways to use Google that I never knew existed, and I thought I was a pretty good Googler (is that a real verb?). Anyway, John Tedesco gives the lowdown here, with a fantastic summary of a presentation from the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors 2012 conference. This is now bookmarked at home and at work. If you do any sort of research, you should check it out.
  • I always felt sort of sorry for the Hufflepuffs. But they can’t help it. They were Sorted This Way.
  • And the new cover art for J.K. Rowling’s new book has been revealed. Meh. It’s not my favorite, but I’m not a red-and-yellow person. Do I care what her book covers look like? Nope. J.K. Rowling could write on a paper bag and I would curl up to read it.

Wishing everyone a wonderful weekend.

– Jen

It’s the small things

One of the surprise flags at the edge of the garden. And yep, it’s time to mow.

Getting the paper in the morning is sort of a big thing with my son. He loves to come outside and listen to the birds sing. Sometimes he stands on the front porch, sometimes he runs into the yard. When he was tiny, I would carry him, tip him over and let him grab the newspaper. He was so proud of himself for helping.

Today when we went outside we had a lovely surprise. Some mystery neighbor had planted three American flags in our yard. They were in the garden near the sidewalk, and when we looked up and down the street we saw that most of the homes had flags lining their yards as well.

Seriously, this felt like Christmas.

My little guy yelled, “Flags, flags, flags!” and ran up and down the front walk. Then we walked a bit to look at the other yards. Then we came inside to get daddy, so that he could see too.

There was no note left behind. But I have an idea who did it. You know how? Not every house nearby had the flags, and my neighbor – the likely source of this unexpected dash of patriotism – doesn’t approve of the way that certain people in our historic neighborhood keep their yards or paint their houses.

Okay. So I didn’t say he was a perfect neighbor. But today he made my kids very happy. And honestly, it had sort of made my day as well, to have someone do me a kindness. It makes our little part of the neighborhood look so cheery. And tonight when people are swarming all over the place to get a parking spot for the fireworks display that’s at our park, maybe it will cheer them up too.

I wish I had thought of this.

It really is about the small things that we do for each other, and the ability to enjoy them.

Happy 4th to all, no matter what color your house is.

– Jen

More on the books-page breakdown

What was the lineup on the Books pages of the Express-News this week? For Sunday, July 1, 2012, the gender breakdown looked like this:

  • Number of reviews/stories: Six
  • Female authors: Two
  • Male authors: Four

We also featured one poem by Janice Rebecca Campbell.

The books featured included Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, The Chicken Hanger by Ben Rehder, Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss and The Last Minute by Jeff Abbott.

There were technically two books featured in the “Poetic Diversity” column, Nape and The Wonder Is: New & Selected Poems by Jan Seale, the Texas Poet Laureate.

Three of the featured writers – Rehder, Abbott and Seale – are Texas based.

So far, my totally unscientific, two-week gender count of our local books page looks like this:

  • Number of reviews/stories: 11
  • Female authors: Four
  • Male authors: Seven


– Jen

Women writers, book pre-orders and the books page

I’ve watched in fascination the last few years as bestselling authors Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have spoken out about the lesser-than-thou treatment women authors receive from book reviewers. Weiner has been particularly vocal, and her biggest and most famous beef is with the New York Times, which she says has given short shrift to female authors in its Sunday books section.

(True? Actually, yes, Weiner is not just some crazy lady writer. People started counting. And the results were depressingly detailed by VIDA in 2010, and again in 2011).

Why does it matter? Do people who pick up a book give a crap whether the author is male or female? I don’t. It’s honestly not something I’ve thought much about in the past. A good book is a good book, period.

But the hard truth is that when book reviewers pay attention to particular authors or titles, it spreads the word. People will pre-order the book, or put in a request at the library for it (leading the library to order more copies) or mark it down on their Christmas wish list. Sometimes the reviews work as a heads up that a favorite writer has a new book coming out soon. Either way, attention to books online, in print or on the radio matters very much. From I gather, good reviews lead to more pre-orders and sales, which means the publisher pays more attention to that book and writer, which leads to a bigger print run, more money for marketing, a better likelihood that the author will get to write more books in the future… You get the idea.

So the 10,000-foot view of this is that if female authors don’t get the same shot at coverage, they might not earn as much in royalties or have the same chances to continue publishing. Ugh.

I took just enough women’s studies classes in college to get thoroughly pissed off at this big fat self-fulfilling circle.

There’s an interesting roundup of the issue on the Huffington Post here, and from the Ask Angie blog here. Thanks to the hullabaloo, I’m paying more attention to who I’m reading. And I’m pre-ordering more books as a small gesture to support the writers I love to read.

Reading is personal. So what does this mean on a local level?

After rescuing the SA Life section from my one-year-old, I counted bylines and authors on our books page. Here’s the breakdown for Sunday, June 24, 2010:

  • Five stories/book reviews.
  • Female authors: 2. Male authors: 3.
  • Bylines: 5 male.

The Express-News also published a poem by Juan Manuel Perez. (Side note: I think it is awesome that we publish poetry, and this one is called “El Chupacabra: An Introduction,” which absolutely made me want to read it).

Several of the reviews/stories had a local connection – those writers might be in San Antonio for a signing or talk, and the coverage helps bring attention to those events. There’s often a regional focus, featuring the authors who are in town, who live nearby or set a story in Texas. It’s how you make your books pages different than any others.

But one week of the books pages is no trend. I’ll keep a running tally here to see how the issue stacks up here in San Antonio over time. Maybe we’ll turn out to be more enlightened than the media elite, who have a gender diversity record that looks a lot like Congress’ approval ratings. Maybe we have a more diverse mix of genres represented on our books pages, or give more exposure to Hispanic authors or regional authors that might get short shrift in other parts of the country, or pay more attention to debut authors. However you want to slice and dice it, spread the word when you find a great book or writer.

– Jen

My favorite perk of working at the newspaper… books!

Suddenly I'm longing for a rainy day...

Some people get huge end-of-year bonuses or attend fancy conferences in exotic locations for their jobs.

At the paper, we get a crack at really cheap books.

Lest you think I’m being a sarcastic and cynical reporter, I think this is an AWESOME perk. Twice a year the newsroom holds a book sale, usually in late spring and in December, just in time for Christmas shopping. Several thousand books are up for grabs – the vast leftovers of what’s been sent to the books editor for months. (He, by the way, receives more mail than anyone I’ve ever known).

Nearly everything costs $1 and the money goes towards causes such as literacy programs and journalism scholarships. This time one of the programs the sale supported is the Urban Journalism Workshop at San Antonio College, which gives high school students a crack at journalism. It is a very cool program that has been in financial trouble lately.

We just held the sale last Friday. It is a fabulous, jumbled up flea market of books released in the last year or so, plus a few things people have finally cleaned off of their desks.

This time I was thrilled to snag a variety of titles, including Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner, Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale and Father’s Day by Buzz Bissinger. I also grabbed a few books as gifts. And one about raw food that may never get cracked, but for which I have the best intentions. (I was feeling ambitious and do-goody when I picked up that one).

The best part is that I was able to get a lot of fantastic children’s books for my little ones. Reading is a big deal at our house and my little boy gets so excited about new books.

While we set up for the sale and unpack boxes, there’s a running commentary along the lines of, “Gee, what a surprise. Bristol Palin has a ghostwriter.” Or, “It’s amazing how just a typefont can turn you off.” And boy howdy does a lot of strange stuff get published.

Here’s the publishing trends we noticed during our totally unscientific, snarky commentary that accompanies the sale set up: Lots of fantasy. Lots of middle grade, which we usually don’t see in the review piles. Lots of diet books (always). Lots of history.

I snagged some lovely classics – Jane Eyre, Sense and Sensibility, Wuthering Heights and Price and Prejudice – published by Splinter, an imprint of Sterling Publishing.

I’ve read them all of course. But I’m a sucker for good design, and these covers by fashion illustrator Sara Singh were too gorgeous to resist.

Especially for a buck. And hooray, it looks like new titles, including Emma and Great Expectations, will be released in the fall.

I lugged out $28 worth of books and nearly dislocated my shoulder getting to the car. Totally worth it.

– Jen

Sniff. In praise of the feel-good graduation story.

If you ever go through a newspaper’s archives, you’ll see the same stories appearing again and again.

Something is over budget. Someone wins state. Someone dies too young. Later this year there will be Black Friday stories about crazy people lining up for cheap TVs. Year-in-review stories. Lose-weight-in-the-new-year stories.

One perennial story that I never get tired of reading: the against-all-odds graduation story.

These just take my breath away.

My friend Elisa Crouch at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote one of my favorites this year, about an often-homeless student at a tough school where 83 percent of the kids fail the state’s math exam. 83 percent failure! Eboni Boykin is a varsity cheerleader. She leads Bible studies. She went to a journalism camp at Princeton. Now she’s headed to Columbia University on a full scholarship.

There’s been a lot of coverage of the student in North Carolina who is Harvard-bound. Steve Lyttle of the Charlotte Observer wrote a beautiful story about how even after she was abandoned by her parents and survived by working as a janitor at her own school, Dawn Loggins managed to make As. It gets better. She is setting up a foundation to help other homeless students.

The San Antonio Express-News published one this week by Francisco Vara-Orta about twin sisters who were orphaned when their mother was shot, then faced a tough childhood bouncing between family members. Adriane and Aundrea Davis are both going to college on scholarship.

It’s the best of what it is to be human – to face terrible odds in terrible surroundings, but lift yourself out. To cling to hope, to an idea, because it’s all you have. They’re a reminder of how astonishing people can be, and what the possibilities are in life.

I could read these all day long.

– Jen